Dams obstruct the abliity of salmon to spawn.
Dams obstruct the ability of salmon to spawn. Evan Linnell/Getty Images

Pacific Northwest salmon and those who enjoy eating them got some unfortunate news Friday from the federal government, which released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) that rejects a proposal to remove four dams on the Lower Snake River in the Columbia River Basin. The proposal had been pushed by conservation groups, Native tribes, and advocates for the fishing industry.


Salmon populations have been on the decline for decades, in part due to dams, which obstruct the species' ability to spawn. In fact, dams in the Columbia River Basin make over half of salmon spawning grounds inaccessible, and over a dozen salmon runs are currently considered threatened or endangered, as the Associated Press reports. This has had major downstream impacts on the fishing industry as well as on Puget Sound's endangered southern resident orca populations, which depend on salmon to stay alive.

The proposal to remove these dams, which salmon advocates have been pushing for over 25 years, is opposed by federal agencies like U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Bonneville Power Administration, which co-authored the EIS released Friday. These agencies argued that the dams are essential for flood control, agriculture, shipping, and providing clean hydroelectric power to the Pacific Northwest.

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While it is true that the region has some of the cleanest air in the U.S. in part because of our reliance on hydroelectricity rather than fossil fuels, at the same time, dams are hugely disruptive to ecosystems. Advocates for their removal argue that other clean energy sources could replace hydroelectric without disrupting the power supply or significantly increasing the cost to consumers. And there is some data to back this up: According to a study conducted by the NW Energy Coalition, increasing efficiency and renewable energy sources like solar and wind could make up for lost energy at an estimated cost of just one extra dollar a month for consumers.

"The power replacement study—the most extensive yet undertaken on the subject—shows that power from the four lower Snake River dams can be affordably replaced by a mix of energy efficiency measures and renewable energy resources without any loss of electric-system reliability and with little or no increase in greenhouse gas emissions," wrote NW Energy Coalition Executive Director Nancy Hirsh in the Tri-City Herald. "In fact, electric system adequacy, reliability, and flexibility would actually improve. These findings put to rest the decades-old myth that we have to choose between clean, affordable, and reliable energy on the one hand, and the recovery of salmon populations on the other."

But switching to other renewable energy sources is probably not going to happen now. There's a 45-day public comment period on the fed's draft proposal, but it's unlikely much will change. According to EarthJustice, the legal advocacy group that represents salmon advocates, the last comment period received over 400,000 comments, the majority of which favored dam removal. That does not seem to have changed the outcome. The final EIS is due in June.